Saturday, April 25, 2015

Top 10 Final Battles: #10: Banjo-Kazooie

The (pre-Xbox 360) Banjo-Kazooie games are what any action adventure gamer wants.  It has large explorable worlds, a gleeful googly-eyed style and humor that can be fun for all ages,which is kind of a rarity nowadays where the best games are rated T or M.

With the exception of Banjo Pilot, these games mostly focused on the exploration aspect through collecting items like musical notes and jigsaw pieces for opening paths to new worlds.  They're as much action games as adventure games though, with a variety of different moves to break objects and enemies during your travels.

However, bosses in the Banjo-Kazooie games weren't particularly prominent until Banjo Tooie, the second one.  The first game only had a few enemies that could be considered bosses, but its final one is so brilliantly done that it beats every other one in the franchise.


Toward the end of the game, after passing through all the worlds in her lair and collecting enough jiggies and musical notes, Banjo and Kazooie rescue Banjo's sister Tootie from the witch Gruntilda by completing her giant deadly quiz show.  Grunty runs away, the credits roll and the titular duo goes back to their home to celebrate a job well done.  Unfortunately, before they can get too comfortable, Tootie reminds them that Gruntilda got away and that they need to finish the job, apparently implying that the heroes have to go back up there and kill her!  This game got dark, fast.

Right past the game board, back where the game had its fake-out ending is the creepy laboratory shown in previous cutscenes.  There lies one more jigsaw picture frame of Grunty that when completed, opens the door to her cauldron room.  Conveniently her talking cauldron Dingpot offers to float the heroes up to the top of Gruntilda's lair where she's taken refuge because she horribly mistreats him.

Through a small opening on the roof, Banjo and Kazooie come face to face with Grunty, flying on her living broomstick for the final showdown at the top of her tower.

The music used for this final battle sets the mood perfectly to the point that it likely wouldn't work in any other game.  Series composer Grant Kirkhope shows his stuff once again with a frantic and heavy remix of Gruntilda's theme that quickly switches between instruments and keeps a consistent medley to remember it by.  You can picture how invested any conductor would be in this music.  It must've been like his own little dance.  It's so good I distinctly remember it being played over my middle school's PA system on the last school day of the year before summer break.  Those were better times.

This battle music would sound even more amazing using modern-day technology instead of the Nintendo 64's limited cartridge size.  That never happened, but Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts had a fun variation for when you challenge her.

[Update: Some time the writing of this article I discovered that there is indeed a very excellent modern rendition of the theme by the synthetic music artist Blake Robinson, along with the entire Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack.  His music is available on iTunes, so give him a listen.]

Phase 1

The fight starts out simple.  Grunty repeatedly dive bombs you with her broomstick, which you have to dodge.

But at after a few runs, the broomstick, in a bit of the series' anachronistic humor, sputters like a broken car engine and Grunty is stuck in place hitting it to get it to start again, leaving her open for an attack.  After falling victim to this automotive broomstick failure three times, she changes tactics.

Phase 2

Grunty starts using her head and throws a homing spell that can't be avoided and must be blocked with the invincibility move (with good timing so as not to waste the golden feathers they use up).  Once that move hits, she flies out of reach and starts pelting fireballs with the occasional homing spell.  The way the fireballs have the sound effects of powerful fireworks with dynamite-like explosions give them another sense of the anachronism present through the whole game as well as some extra punch.
They can be dodged, but with a little outside-the-box thinking, you'll figure out you can avoid each and every one by standing right behind whichever perimeter stone she flies in front of.

But you can't go up and melee attack her anymore, otherwise you'd immediately fall to your death right off the tower.  Instead you must use your projectile attack: the blue eggs.  With good timing, the player has to wait for Grunty to pause in her fireball shooting, quickly jump on top of the stone they should've been taking cover behind and fire a volley of eggs.  When Grunty sees that moving out of range isn't helping, she takes to the skies.

Phase 3

"A big old gal I may just be, but when I fly you won't get me!"

Except you will.

Grunty flies high into the sky, even further out of reach, but your good old friend Boggles creates a flight pad to allow you to fly after her and use your aerial Beak Bombardment attack to hit her.

You can see the escalating difficulty at this point.  If you run out of red feathers to fly higher, try to land when the castle isn't below you or miss her with your attack and hit the edge of the stage, you're dead.  You can't screw up!  All the while you have to dodge the fireballs she hurls, which both hurt you and discombobulate your flight.  Part of the challenge can be blamed on the loose flight controls, admittedly, but that's something you were supposed to have gotten used to.

Phase 4

Seeing that there's no way she can avoid you, Grunty instead goes for a defensive approach and covers herself in a magic barrier in the middle of the stage.

But more help arrives in the form of the Jinjos you've been rescuing through the whole game, except these ones seem to have been sealed in statues.  Each of the four statues has a hole you must shoot three eggs into (those things can do anything) to release the Jinjo sealed inside and ram into Grunty, bypassing her shield.  She doesn't make it that easy, of course.  Her fireballs and homing attacks keep coming and this time she's in the center of the stage, so you can't take cover.  You have to quickly get into shooting position and fire so you don't get hit by her magic.

After the last sealed Jinjo slams into her, Grunty's broomstick shatters and grounds her on one of the perimeter rocks, but she still has her shield up.  With Grunty still invulnerable, it seems there's nothing more you can do.  You expended all the Jinjos, Gruny's shield still protects her from anything you can throw at her and she starts leading the target with her fireball attacks, requiring you to constantly change direction to dodge them.  It goes on for a good long minute until one last Jinjo status rises from the center of the tower: The all-powerful, never-again-referred-to Jinjonator!

The Jinjonator has four holes to shoot eggs into on each side of the pedestal.  With Grunty shooting her spells more accurately in rapid succession just a few feet away, it is by far the hardest part of the game.  The hole in the back is easy because you can use the statue for cover, but going out in the open for the other ones is the ultimate test of your dodging ability.

It's pretty much inevitable that you're going to get hit, which is why it's a great help to have the double life bar a jigsaw portrait in the cauldron room can give you.
If you can survive Grunty's onslaught and activate the Jinjonator, you bear witness to the witch's ultimate defeat.  The other Jinjos fly into the Jinjonator to combine their power with his for one final Jinjo strike.

Gruntilda reels in pain as she holds her shield up against the Jinjonator's incredibly powerful musical sting-accompanied dive bombing, but the Jinjonator has power to spare.  He shouts "Jinjo" in a slow, booming voice before charging into Grunty with one last ultra-powered slam.

I love her expression.
The last hit breaks Grunt's shield and sends her teetering over the edge of her tower, but not before she throws out one last spell to finish the heroes off!

But the game is just faking you out.  It misses.

You don't even move.
From atop her incredibly high tower without her broomstick, Grunty takes a long fall to the bottom of Spiral Mountain.
The impact makes a Looney Toons-style witch-shaped imprint in the ground, which is immediately sealed up by a huge boulder that fell from her lair.

I was expecting something more like this:

Struggle as she might, neither Gruntilda nor her crony Klungo is able to heave the boulder from off of her.  She remains trapped in the ground and slowly starves to death.

Or she possesses a mecha Grunty and gets her sisters to bust her out as a skeleton, but that's not until later.

Why it's the best

The final battle of Banjo-Kazooie is the quintessential example of a final exam boss.  It makes you use all the close range, long range, aerial and dodging abilities you've been learning through the game as its ultimate test.

Furthermore, Grunty thinks on her feet through the entire thing.  She doesn't resort to tactical suicide like a lot of platformer bosses are known to do.  It only takes a few good hits for Grunty to realize her method of attack isn't working.  She tries dive bombing for a hit & run, but her broomstick can't take it and she keeps getting hit, so she instead gets out of range to keep away.  When she sees that doesn't work, she gets even further away by taking to the skies where the eggs can't fire, and when that doesn't work she stops playing evasively and instead plays defensively with her shield, positioning herself in the middle of the arena so she can shoot at any spot on the tower.
Her last position on the edge of the tower might be argued as tempting fate, but it gave her elevation and covered her back, at least.  That or she's so out of shape she doesn't want to bother moving, which given some of her dialogue throughout the game, seems kind of likely.

The fight with Gruntilda in Banjo Tooie is a great ending to an even better game, but it isn't as memorable as this one.  That boss feels less like a final exam, drags on (100 hit points!) and you don't even fight the witch herself so much as her sisters' tank.

That a game from the 90s has made it into this multi-generation-spanning top 10 list either says something about how masterfully made and timeless it is, how blinded I am by nostalgia, or how weak modern-day games have made their finales by comparison.  It also shows that you don't need cutting edge presentation to make something epic and impactful, a trait shared by the next final boss battle at #9.

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